A screenshot from Tucker Carlson's show of June 17, 2021.

A screenshot from Tucker Carlson's show of June 17, 2021. FOX

How Tucker Carlson Helped Turn Americans Against the Military

The partisan firebrand told viewers that uniformed leaders were out to weaken the armed forces and the country itself.

For all the ways Tucker Carlson left his mark on U.S. politics, few are as startling as helping to turn right-wingers against the troops they once revered. 

In the olden days, the right would blame social progress (opposing gays in the military, women in combat, etc.) on the Democratic politicians who forced unwanted “social experiments” upon the military. Today, they attack the military and its leaders.

It was a regular theme of Carlson’s top-rated primetime show on Fox News, emboldened by President Trump’s open disdain for “my generals.” Start at the top. We all know why the right hates Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, who still draws fire on social media as a “traitor” who declined to offer “total loyalty” to his erratic, ill-informed, and authoritarian commander-in-chief. After Trump’s successor kept Milley on as his senior military advisor, Carlson began targeting the chairman for his efforts to fight racism in the ranks. “He’s not just a pig, he’s stupid,” the TV host said after Milley rebutted false accusations of pushing critical race theory. “The Pentagon is now the Yale faculty lounge, but with cruise missiles. That should concern you,” the Trinity College grad ranted to his viewers.

As Biden officials rolled out their national-security policies, Carlson pressed his attack on the Pentagon’s uniformed leaders for supporting the administration’s approach to China, NATO expansion, the international order, and support for Ukraine.

His audience heard it all.

Halfway through the Trump administration, Americans’ regard for and trust in the military began to nose-dive. The share of respondents who told a Reagan Forum poll they had “a great deal of confidence” in the military plunged from 70% in 2018 to 63% the following year, and 56% in early 2021. (It bottomed out at 45% during the Biden administration’s first winter, and rose in the most recent poll to 48%.)

Asked in the most recent poll why they felt that way, 62% of all respondents mentioned “over-politicization” among their reasons. But while 47% of Trump voters said they were bothered “a great deal” by it, just 21% of Biden voters said so.

That makes sense, after a few years of off-the-charts politicization by the Trump administration. Right-wing scholars and editorial boards interpreted the data to say that Biden’s “woke” policies were to blame, noting that half of respondents said it was a contributing factor. But that ignores the partisan cross-section: 68% of Trump voters were more upset about wokeness, while just 44% of Biden voters were. That’s the Carlson effect.

Night after night on his talk show, Carlson blasted the military in ways that previous conservative voices would not dare. He hated the military’s efforts to champion diversity, teach about racism, open service to gay and transgender Americans, allow women in combat, and root out white nationalists and other extremists in uniform. Beyond social issues, Carlson slammed military leaders for supporting Ukraine’s fight against Russian invaders. In almost the same breath, he accused generals of trying to weaken the U.S. military and drum up war with China. 

In all of these positions, Carlson built a reputation as Donald Trump’s defender. He even tried to steer a multibillion-dollar Pentagon contract for cloud computing toward the company Trump favored.

Carlson mattered more to national security than most in Washington want to acknowledge. Where he led, conservatives follow. Over the past few years, Gallup has found rising support for Russia and less for Ukraine; more support for Israel and less for Palestinians; more support for border security and less for Mexico; and so on. In the Reagan Forum poll, Trump voters saw China as the top threat, while Biden voters pointed to Russia.

But for all his attacks, Carlson was unable to completely undermine Americans’ confidence in their military. The most recent Reagan Forum poll found that 80% of Biden voters and 83% of Trump voters said they still have either “a great deal” or “some” confidence in the U.S. military. That shows that even his audience knows the difference between the performance art of partisanship and the apolitical service to one’s country. 

The “politicization of the military” debate, while noble in spirit, can be confounding, and its defenders tainted with naked political motivations. I suspect our politicians will leave the military out of it only when it benefits them to do so. Until then, Carlson’s legacy lives on. Later this year, a new crop of top uniformed Pentagon leaders will rise to replace Milley and several of the retiring service branch chiefs. They had better plan a good defense. Tucker’s coming at them.